Syrian President Bashar al-Assad yesterday announced that a constitutional referendum would be held on February 26, in a move aimed at accelerating “the project for reform”, whose backbone lies in constitutional change. [The resolution] of all remaining issues revolves around [this change], including the parliamentary elections scheduled for this coming May, as well as the repositioning of the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party which has amended its dogmatic stance to end its symbiotic relationship with the regime. It is expected to hold its national congress following the referendum on the constitution.
The day of the referendum will face many challenges, with security chief among them, as it would currently seem almost impossible to [hold polling] in places like Homs and Idlib, and completely out of the question in areas such as the suburbs of Hama, Daraa, and some parts of the suburbs of Aleppo and Damascus. This suggests that the Syrian government has decided to bring these areas under control before the referendum, on a date that also comes two days after the “Friends of Syria” conference in Tunisia. Many consider this [timing] to be signficant, given the fact that some in the international and Arab communities have chosen to deal with the Syrian crisis as a humanitarian crisis more than a political one. The White House quickly dismissed al-Assad’s [announcement], labeling the idea of a constitutional referendum in Syria “laughable”; while Moscow welcomed it as a “step forward”, emphasizing that attempts by some countries to isolate Assad were “wrong”; and Cairo warned of the “grave consequences” of the deterioration of the situation in Syria, demanding that the Arab plan of action be implemented in order to contain [the development of the crisis].
Sources that discussed the matter with Al-Safir affirmed that the referendum would take place regardless of the circumstances, and pointed out that municipal elections were held in a similar atmosphere (at the end of last year). The sources continued to say that any person wanting to vote for the implementation of the new constitution must head to the nearest referendum polling station and make their position clear; while those wishing to abstain from voting are free to do so. Voting will be limited to one day only and Syrian citizens will vote either for or against the implementation of the new constitution.
Official sources have declared that parliamentary elections would be held no later than ninety days after the referendum vote, while Al-Safir’s information on the matter pointed to the possibility of the elections taking place significantly before the end of that period. According to this mechanism, the month of March would see the formation of a new government to supervise the upcoming parliamentary elections and then be dissolved so that a government could be formed based on the results of the voting.
The annoucement came concurrently with the Syrian Committee on Political Parties granting the National Development Party a license to operate, bringing the number of newly licensed [political] parties to a total of six which, along with the previously licensed eight parties - including the Baath - would compete in the upcoming elections. Preliminary expectations point to the Socialist Baath Party retaining its superiority if the disorganized opposition once again decides to boycott the elections.
Last Sunday, Assad received a copy of the Draft Constitution of the Syrian Arab Republic during a meeting with members of the national committee tasked with preparing the document, so that he may study it and forward it to the People’s Council before it is submitted to a general referendum.
The new constitution consists of 157 articles that make up six different categories: General Principles; Rights, Freedoms and the Rule of Law; Branches of the State, which include the Legislative, Executive and Judicial [branches]; the High Constitutional Court; Constitutional Amendments; and General and Transitional Provisions, in addition to a Preamble.
Article 1 of the new constitution states that the Syrian Arab Republic is a democratic and fully sovereign indivisible state, and no part of its territory can be ceded; it is part of the Arab homeland and its people part of the Arab Nation.
Article 2 of the new constitution states that the country shall be administered through a republican form of government where sovereignty is vested in the people, and no individual or group can lay claim to the regime. It will be a state ruled by the people for the people where the people decide upon sovereign issues within the provisions and limitations that the constitution sets out.
Article 3 of the constitution determines the religion of the President of the Republic to be Islam and that Islamic jurisprudence is the main source of legislation, while noting that the state shall respect all religions and guarantee their full right to practice, so long as they do not disturb public order, while the personal status of religious communities shall remain protected.
Article 8 of the constitution, which previously stated that the Baath Party was the leader of the state and society, now states that “the political system of the state shall be built upon the principle of political pluralism, and governance shall be democratically achieved through elections, and licensed political parties and electoral blocs will contribute to the national political life and must respect the principles of national sovereignty and democracy and abide by the laws that regulate the terms and procedures for the formation of political parties.”
Article 8 also contains a clause that prohibits the conduct of any political activity or the formation of parties or political blocs based upon religious, sectarian, tribal, regional, class, or professional affiliations, in addition to gender, origin, race or color; and that no one may use public office or funds for political, partisan or electoral benefit.
Article 11 of the new constitution states that the army and other national armed forces are responsible for the defense of the homeland’s territory and territorial sovereignty, while remaining at the service of the people’s interests, protecting their goals as well as national security.
Article 15 of the constitution clarifies that private property - whether individually or communally owned - is protected according to the following tenets: The public seizure of funds is prohibited. Individual ownership may not be expropriated except by decree for the public’s interest and in return for just compensation in accordance with the law. Private seizure of property can only be effected by court decision. Private seizure is permissible for the necessities of war and general catastrophes if ordered by law and in return for just compensation which must be equal to the property’s real value.
The draft resolution also includes articles that affirm that the state shall guarantee freedom of the press, printing and publishing, as well as the freedom of the media and their independence “according to the law”. [Furthermore,] “citizens have the right to peacefully congregate, demonstrate and go on strike according to the principles of the constitution, while the law regulates the exercise of these rights”. Also the “freedom to form associations and trade unions in accordance with national interests, for legitimate goals and through peaceful means, is guaranteed by the provisions and conditions as set by the [relevant] laws.”
The new constitution also states that the “President be elected directly by the people”. Article 88 of the draft states that “the President of the Republic is elected for 7 years according to the Christian calendar, beginning at the date of the expiration of the term of the incumbent President. The President of the Republic can subsequently be elected for only one additional term.”
But Article 87 states that “if the President’s term ends without a new President being elected, then the incumbent President shall remain in office until a new President is elected.”
Conditions to be met by Presidential candidates are set as follows: “Must be over forty years of age and an Arab Syrian by birth whose parents are also Arab Syrian by birth. The candidate must have continuously resided in the Syrian Arab Republic for no less than ten years preceding his candidacy. No nomination will be accepted unless it is accompanied by the written endorsement of at least 35 members of the People’s Council. If only one candidate satisfies the conditions for nomination during the preset time period, then the President of the People’s Council will call for nominations to be opened once again according to the same conditions.”
Article 103 states that the President of the Republic can declare and terminate a state of emergency through a decree passed by a two-thirds majority in the Council of Ministers over which he presides. Said decree shall be presented to the People’s Council on its first subsequent meeting, in the manner stipulated by the law.”
Shortly after the announcement of the constitutional referendum date, Interior Minister Mohammed al-Shaar issued a decree calling for the formation of central committees to undertake the task assigned to them as defined in the referendum law pursuant to executive instructions to oversee the referendum vote on the draft constitution in regional polling stations. He also issued a decree for the formation of the Central Supervisory Committee for the referendum on the new draft constitution, headed by the Interior Minister and with the membership of the Minister’s aids. [The task of these aids] will be to oversee the referendum process and take charge of their organization throughout Syria; take appropriate measures to guarantee the citizens’ right to participate in the referendum in a free, safe and organized atmosphere; [and] execute the tasks that fall under the jurisdiction of the Ministry concerning the referendum. In addition, [they will] study and approve draft resolutions, orders and instructions issued by the Ministry in relation to the referendum, and tally the final overall results of the referendum.
AFP, AP and Reuters reported that Melhem al-Droubi, one of the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood and a member of the Syrian National Council, rejected the new constitution, deeming it “at least eleven months too late.”
Following his meeting with his Dutch counterpart Uri Rosenthal in Wassenaar north of The Hague, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that it is “wrong” to exclude [the Syrian government] from any consultations aimed at ending the violence in that country. He further stated that “Unfortunately some of our partners long ago wrote off the government of Syria. And instead of dialogue, there is an attempt to isolate the Syrian government”. He added “A new constitution to end one-party rule in Syria is a step forward, and we hope that the constitution will be adopted.” He expressed hope that “elections will be held in Syria at the end of May in compliance with the new constitution. This move came late, but better late than never.”
Lavrov announced that he would meet his French counterpart, Alain Juppé in Vienna to discuss France’s desire to establish humanitarian corridors in Syria. He said that he will be ready to listen to what Juppé has to say, but added, “if the plan is to use the Security Council and the United Nations to come up with a formula that would legitimize regime change, then it would be in violation of International Law and we cannot support such a measure.”
Juppé had told the France Info radio channel that “we should protect the civilians, and the humanitarian aspect is very important here.” He added that the idea for “establishing humanitarian corridors that would permit non-governmental organizations to reach the areas subjected to brutal massacres must be brought before the Security Council.”
Turkey had urged the United Nations to appeal to the Syrian regime to allow humanitarian aid to be sent to help civilians. In Ankara, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu stressed the need for the United Nations not only to intervene politically but also “on a humanitarian level” in Syria. He added that Turkey would insist that the Syrian issue remain open “on the United Nations’ agenda”.
The White House labeled the Syrian regime’s announcement of a referendum on a new draft resolution as “laughable”, with White House spokesman Jay Carney saying “it's actually quite laughable - it makes a mockery of the Syrian revolution.”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights announced that “thirty-one people were killed in acts of violence, among them twelve soldiers in battles between the army and a rebel group in the suburbs of Aleppo.”